Philippa East, writer of prize-winning short stories, was recently signed to a two-book deal by HQ/HarperCollins. Her debut novel, psychological thriller Little White Lies, will be released next February. It tells the story of a missing child who is found several years later … or is she?
Welcome to Last Word of the Week, Philippa, it’s lovely to meet you. Can you tell us something about yourself that you think anyone who reads your book/s really ought to know?
Philippa: I work as a clinical psychologist and therapist, so people often ask if I get story ideas from my work. I have come across quite a few unusual and often extreme stories from people’s lives but I’ve never been involved a real-life case like the one in my debut book – probably because it’s a situation that is almost unheard of: a missing child being found alive after such a long time. So even for me, it was quite a leap of imagination to put myself in the shoes of the various family members and think about how this one-in-a-million event might play out.
Saying that, I still wanted to explore in the book some of the themes that I frequently come across in my psychology work. For example, the different ways in which we try to cope with guilt; how trauma affects not only victims but also those closest to them; and how powerful a simple acknowledgement of wrongdoing can be.
Psychologist, eh? *sits up straighter* What is your favourite scene from your own writing? Why?
Oh gosh, that’s a hard question! I tend to grapple so much with writing and editing my scenes that it can be something of a love-hate relationship! Saying that, there’s a pivotal scene in Little White Lies when my two teenage characters visit a fairground and find themselves right on that thin edge between excitement and terror – a sort of borderland between childhood and adulthood. I visited funfairs a lot growing up (one used to set up just across from our house) so the scene brought back a lot of visceral memories for me.
Finding the right ending for the book was a challenge, but also a really rewarding experience. The book is written from two alternating points-of-view (that of the abducted girl’s mother and that of her teenage cousin) and so the ending had to resolve both characters’ arcs at the same time. I talked this aspect of the book through in detail with both my agent and editor, and it was so satisfying to work with them to piece together a resolution that really felt true to the story I was trying to tell.
Oh! – and I also wrote a short story called “Kraken” which featured a sea-bathing woman’s encounter with monstrous sea creature. That was a totally cathartic way to exorcise my own phobia about what lurks in the ocean’s deeps!
So interesting! I can see that quite a lot of thinking goes into the motives and resolutions of your stories. If I told one of your characters (you get to choose which one) that they were imaginary, how would they respond?
Hah hah! Well, my teenage protagonist Jess would probably go off in a huff. She is the cousin of the girl who went missing, and since her beloved cousin has been found and come home Jess is really struggling to make sense of this relationship and what it means for her now. Like most teenagers, she is trying to work out her place in the world, who she really is and what it means to grow up. I think if I told her she was imaginary she’d be furious at me for saying all her angst wasn’t “real”!
That kind of teenage response would be very interesting to see. Can you think of any books and/or writers who inspired you on your path to be an author? Can you tell us about that?
Oh wow, where do I start? I have been such a voracious reader ever since I can remember (I grew up without a TV), and I think at some level every single book I’ve read has shaped me as an author. For a long time in my life though, I didn’t contemplate being a writer, and in fact I tried all kinds of other creative pursuits instead: pottery, photography, music, drawing – you name it. But with hindsight, it’s obvious that stories and books were going to be my thing because, for me, reading is practically on a par with eating and breathing.
If I had to pick one, I do think Gone Girl was very influential for me. Up until that point, I was reading a lot of Penguin Classics and literary works(!!) and was just not up to speed with contemporary, commercial fiction. Gone Girl showed me just how sophisticated and beautifully-written a contemporary page-turner could be. That book got me into psychological thrillers, which were the huge trend at that time. From there, I sensed a gap in the market for a story about an abducted child being found instead of being ‘gone’. So thanks, Gillian Flynn!
I’ve also been incredibly inspired by writers I’ve met along the way such as Joanna Cannon, Tor Udal, Amanda Berriman and Deborah Install who made it into the publishing world ahead of me. Seeing their hard work, persistence and success made me realise the dream was possible – and really lit the fire under me to follow in their footsteps.
Oh, thank you so much for the names here – these books look fab! And for the reflection that reading is as fundamental as eating and breathing. I like that.
Now take yourself back ten years – what would you like to tell yourself?
Calm down, slow down, keep perspective on what really matters. Writing, editing and getting published all take huge amounts of patience; you can’t rush or force things. Also, with every success that you achieve, a parallel risk of failure will materialise alongside (finished a book, won’t get an agent; got an agent, won’t sell; sold, won’t get good reviews; got good reviews, book two will bomb – and on and on). Focus on the writing and learning your craft, which is all you can really control. And always celebrate each tiny success.
What’s next for you in the world of writing?
Well, I’m super excited (and a little bit terrified) about the release of Little White Lies which will be published by HQ/HarperCollins in early February 2020. In the meantime, I’m busy writing book two, and I already have an idea percolating for book three. I think having more than one book published would be the next big dream for me – to know this can really be my career and that I’m not just a “flash in the pan”! So I think writing, writing and more writing is the answer.
I am looking forward to reading it. And finally: Who would you be if you were a fictional character – one of yours, or someone else’s?
Maybe George from The Famous Five? I loved all that kind of adventuring when I was a kid. Personality-wise, I’m probably most like Monica from Friends (if TV characters are allowed?) – you know, kind of neurotic and obsessional. Maybe you have to be that way to actually write and finish a novel (and then edit it 39 times)!
Indeed, I think you do! Thank you so much fro speaking with me today, Philippa, and all the best with your writing, writing, writing!
You can follow Philippa on twitter @philippa_east